This one is even longer than the first, but that’s it.
And so began, the concluding segment of my junior hockey career. The funny thing is, by the time I was eighteen, I was already looking at it like it was ending. Despite having a remaining two years of junior hockey eligibility left, the WHL (and anything beyond that) pipe dream had come to a close. I arrived home from Prince George with a different mind state. It no longer felt like I was chasing the dream. I was shooting for the next best thing. I was settling, but I didn’t have a choice anymore. It was about a month and a half after most teams had hosted their respective camps. Most clubs were starting to take shape, and I was left with limited options. I was having a difficult time finding a home in the BCHL. I hadn’t done much the year prior in Junior B and had barely played in the WHL. I learned quickly that nobody was out to do me any favours. Most local junior A teams were looking for players who still had their NCAA eligibility. That and someone who had something to show for from previous seasons stat sheets. My best stat was always penalty minutes. For a BC junior hockey league that had coined the phrase ‘smart hockey’, a rough housing WHL reject wasn’t exactly the hot topic. At last, I was approached with a reasonable offer to play some hockey. The good news was that one of my best friends, who was also recently released, would be along for the ride. The bad news was that we were off to Flin Flon, Manitoba. Nothing against the northern city, or the people in it, but that’s a bit of an adjustment for a couple BC boys. None the less, I had just spent time in Moose Jaw and Prince George and wasn’t going to let the city scenery, or lack there of, hold me back. My buddy Jack and I departed a few days later. We took a commercial flight into Winnipeg. From there, we took what appeared to be the first aircraft ever built, for a bumpy flight into Flin Flon, Manitoba. As you can probably assume, West Jet doesn’t fly into Flin Flon. Once we touched down, we were picked up by a young gentleman, who ended up being the assistant coach. I remember sitting in the back seat of his pickup truck, swerving through the dark, rocky region that was our new home. For now. After a good thirty minutes we arrived in the small town. It was late in the evening and we were brought to the rink. It seemed as though they were scrambling to find somewhere for us to stay that night. As though a billet housing situation had not been previously coordinated. Finally, the assistant coach got a hold of an address and we hopped back into the truck and back into the night. We pulled up to an older house with a light on in the kitchen. A middle aged lady walked outside, greeted Jack and I, and led us into her house. For those who haven’t billeted before, it’s not as odd as it may read. She showed us around her home that she and her husband owned and then lead us down to the basement. The first thing I noticed was the ceiling of the basement was about six feet high. I am six-two and Jack about six-one, so we were off to a great start. We hunched our way through an unfinished basement and were introduced to what ended up being the third player we were also to live amongst. The backup goalie of the team, who looked to be somewhat of an 80s hair band star/caveman cross. We soon noticed there were three beds all in plain sight. No rooms. So we had three young men basically sharing one large, privacy free room built for people smaller than us. Our arrival and first taste of Flin Flon was sort of like one small sample of what our entire stay would look like.
Though, the folks we lived with, as well as the long haired net minder ended up being great company, the good news stopped there. As if the stay couldn’t have been any less comfortable, I didn’t have cellphone service my entire time in Northern Manitoba. I guess my British Columbia provider didn’t reach those parts. I was limited to talking to friends and family back home only when wifi was available. I don’t think I was able to talk on the phone once. That may seem like a petty, millennial complaint but sometimes you just wanna hear your mom talk. Just as they appeared to not know where to place us for living, our place in the lineup seemed to be undetermined. Jack and I were in and out of the lineup despite what we were told before flying in. Once again, it seemed as though the team was basically set before we stepped into the dressing room. We both quite quickly grew impatient with the situation we had come into. I was called into the coaches office one afternoon to be informed that I would be moved out of my billet house. To live by myself in another home, to allow everyone more room. Despite the imperfections of our set up, I had grown into it and was promised when flying in Jack and I would be living together. Jack grew more and more unhappy based on everything that was taking place, and departed back home shortly after I moved out. A big part of me going out there was him going out there and with his departure my time seemed limited. I was living by myself with an older couple in a small town, with no cell service, barely playing hockey. The funny thing about sports is when you stop caring, it’s way more apparent than you realize. My mind had flown home when Jack did and my attitude and performance displayed it. A few weeks later I was called into the coaches office once again. This time not to change houses. This time to change teams. I was told I was being traded and was given two options on where I wanted to relocate, if anywhere at all. My first option was about two hours away to a reserve called ‘The Pas’ in Northen Manitoba. They had a hockey team in the Manitoba junior league that I had heard about. The ‘OCN Blizzard’ didn’t exactly seem like a perfect fit. Considering how miserable I was in Flin Flon, going two hours down the road to a town that had just as little going on or (dare I say it) even less didn’t seem like a very viable option. Option number two was to go to Dryden, Ontario to play with the ‘Dryden Ice Dogs’. They played in a small league in Northen Ontario, in the Thunder Bay Area. It was a league, I had heard many notions previously, that was second rate, just consisting of five teams. At this point it seemed my most desirable option would be to fly back home and settle with playing junior B for the remainder of my career. I was disappointed in myself for even thinking that thought, but I was defeated. Knock after knock and getting up was becoming more and more difficult. Just a year prior, I had been in the WHL biding my time, until what I thought would be an eventual successful professional career. Here I was having a hard time finding a desirable Junior hockey option. Over the next several days I spoke with friends and family (when I had wifi) to get some input on my next play. Some suggestions to follow the road where it calls me and some to come home. More than anything, I know everyone was trying to give me the answer that would result in my happiness. I knew two guys playing with the team in Dryden at the time. One was a teammate from the previous year, with the Abbotsford Pilots. The other was a goaltender from my hometown I had went to high school with and played along side several years of minor hockey. The team personnel had the pair of them texting me to see if there was any interest. I wasn’t totally ready to throw in the towel. I was certainly getting there, but I hadn’t quite lost that desire yet. I had never been to Ontario. I thought, ‘why not check out Ontario?’, as if it would be a little road trip. If I was going to just come home, I may as well give it a shot first. So I did. At the time, I didn’t realize that the budget of the team and league wasn’t quite up to what I was used to. Generally, when I would try out or join a team the flight was covered. All you had to do was show up. I’m sure their first impression of me was an egocentric asshole, when I agreed to come and immediately asked what my flight details were. They soon realized the disconnect from my previous experiences and this one and met me in the middle. They set me up with a 20 hour bus ride to Dryden, Ontario. I’m telling you, the only way to truly appreciate the seconds, minutes, hours in a day is to take that ride. I’m far too paranoid of a dude to allow myself to sleep in the uncomfortable environment amongst strangers, so I didn’t sleep a lick. I took in that entire twenty hour ride through the day and night, passing along little prairie towns. I remember buying a pack of cigarettes at one of the first stops when I realized we were stopping in every major city along the way for about a half an hour for pickups and drop offs. I wasn’t a smoker by any means but it was something to do. We made an exceptionally long stop in Brandon, Manitoba for about an hour around 4 am. There was a little 24/7 diner, open near the stop where some of the passengers walked over to, so I followed. They were serving booze, so naturally I made an effort to put back as many beers as possible during the stop. Right around two years prior to that, I was a couple blocks away from that diner playing in my first WHL game against the Wheat Kings. I definitely pondered that for a few minutes. Twelve more delirious hours, through the beautiful yet haunting prairies at night, had me arriving in the Northern Ontario town mid morning. I may have arrived smelling of stale smokes and booze but nobody appeared to take notice. I was four provinces from home and skeptical but I was there. Ironically, as soon as I arrived, the team was within the hour of getting on a bus for an away game in Minnesota. I was given the option to get settled in my new billet home or join my new teammates for there road trip. Oddly enough, after twenty hours on the iron lung, I hopped right back on for another four. It just felt right. Once what ended up being an entire day of rambling concluded, I found myself in Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. I watched the team play a pair of away games. Despite the pace being a little slower than some of the leagues out west, my several recent knocks had left me humbled enough to give it a shot. Everyone in Dryden was fantastic from the start. I was introduced to a young couple who helped keep the community built team up and running. I soon realized they were the backbone to the franchise. They helped set me up and welcomed me with several housing options that I was able to choose between. I picked a situation that I felt was well suited to myself. They themselves also billeted two players of their own that I quickly established a friendship with. Ironically after growing comfortable with them, I probably spent more time in their home than the one they helped place me in. Right off the bat, I was treated with respect on the team. The coach and GM were appreciative that I wanted to give it a shot and several guys on the team knew I had a somewhat colorful junior hockey past. Things felt good. I meshed with the team quickly, was settling in well at my new home(s) and was getting opportunities to play a lot. After a few weeks, I was named one of the assistant captains of the Ice Dogs. It was a hidden little league and there wasn’t a ton of opportunity for exposure to higher levels but I was starting to feel like a hockey player again. I spent most of my days hanging around with the guys I had become close with, doing whatever young men do when they have lots of time and few responsibilities. Life was pretty good. But nothing stays the same forever. Our team seemed to be moving at a rapid pace picking up, trading and releasing players. At one point, it seemed like every week we were shaking a new hand and saying goodbye to an old friend. New guys were coming in competing for spots and competing for ice time. As we continued to sift and sift through the new and old faces, I sunk further and further into the background. At no point was I missing games or huge chunks of ice time but lost that feeling of importance. You can never get too comfortable in the junior hockey world. By mid season, I was routinely having beers every weekend with the guys and hosting team parties. The off ice lifestyle began to overshadow the whole reason I was there. And in that was the beginning of the end. I started contemplating if I was wasting my time, as it became less and less about hockey for me personally. I realized I wasn’t going anywhere further than this. Considering everything that had happened the last several years, before I had gotten to this point, that was a super scary feeling. I never had envisioned myself working a normal job. I always truly believed I would be a pro hockey player. It was now clear that wouldn’t be the case. It was now clear I was biding my time until my junior hockey days were up. As these realizations began to hit me, my attitude towards the entire game began to change. I would often consider going home. At least every other day. I considered just quitting all together and getting on with the real world. After all, in my mind state at that point, if the road wasn’t leading somewhere it didn’t seem worth riding. The funny thing is, as much as I felt like leaving on some days, I miss the hell out of those days today. I miss that feeling. Being four provinces away from home with no requirements other than playing hockey with friends. The season progressed into playoffs as quickly as anything else you forget to appreciate. By this time the scenery had changed significantly since I had first arrived in the small Ontario town. Players were butting heads with one another and with team personnel. Like anything, when you’re surrounded by the same people for months upon months, people get irritable. I was getting irritable. My outlook on hockey had not improved from where I was at mid season and even when playoffs came around, I was only half in. I wish I knew then what I know now. How fantastic of a chapter that was. How much it was truly doing for me as a person to be having that experience. Little did I know, that chapter was about to be closed more abruptly than anyone had expected. We were in Minnesota for our first playoff series. I was playing lackadaisical. Without even intending it, my feeling towards the game was being presented through my performance. For that reason, I was having my opportunity to play cut significantly at the most important time of the year. In all honesty, more than anything I felt disrespected. Clearly the game didn’t mean as much to me as it once did but respect still meant everything to me. I cared about how the guys saw me. The people in the crowd. My parents back home, who would occasionally tune in online. To be all the way out there to watch from the bench during playoffs quietly enraged me. Being a leader on the team and still wearing an ‘A’ on my chest, I did what I could to keep my cool. Though, I knew I was a ticking time bomb. I had been slowly ticking for several years. All the bad bounces in hockey get to you. I was about to step on to the ice, after what seemed like an eternity of being held back for others. The team trainer behind me said something about waiting to see who the coach wanted to put out and I immediately snapped back something ignorant. Which is something I can be pretty good at doing, especially when I was eighteen and frustrated. I didn’t realize that that comment would be it for me. The game progressed after that, I got out for some shifts and had pretty much forgotten I had said anything at all. It wasn’t until after the game had concluded and the coach pulled me out into the hallway. He questioned if I had said something disrespectful to our trainer and I admitted to it. He continued to sort of interrogate me about the situation and I responded very who-gives-a-fuck like. Not angrily but just very whatever, which was definitely the wrong was to go. It progressed to him telling me to pack my shit and head home tomorrow and myself continuing to almost make an effort to appear not to care. So that’s how it went. I’m sure I could have begged for my life and stuck around. But that’s never been me. Especially out in Dryden, Ontario. And so it went. Several days later I packed my bags, said some extremely difficult good byes and went home. I remember seeing the team continue on when I was back home and that was probably the worst part. Seeing something you were a part of and help build, continue on and do fine in your absence. That’s the way life works though. The train keeps rolling. I still had two years remaining of junior hockey and that seemed insane. At that point, I felt like I was ready for it to come to a close. I was unsure on what my next step would be. Get another trade and have another Dryden like experience or mail it in and finish my last two years off playing junior B. Neither option excited my greatly. My junior A ‘rights’ were traded around from Dryden several times that off season. From Dryden to Amherst, Nova Scotia to Virden, Manitoba. I never went to either of those places. It wasn’t in me anymore. As summer past I became less and less committed to the concept of moving away for hockey again. Once upon a time I said I would never return to the Abbotsford Pilots, after I felt I was mistreated while trying to develop and get promoted to higher leagues. I went back on my word and in my nineteen year old season I became an Abbotsford Pilot again. My second stint with the Pilots isn’t worth diving into in great detail. The junior B experience in metro Vancouver is a lot more like minor hockey than it is junior. You drive yourself to games and the furthest road game you’ll play is no further than forty-five minutes. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for teams to grow tight as I had previously experienced in other ventures. That being said my first year back with the Pilots went better than expected. I got along with the guys in the room and was able to find myself on decent terms with the coach despite sour memories. We carried out a fairly anticlimactic season getting knocked out second round of playoffs, though I felt fairly satisfied at the end of the year. I guess that one night I wore a slapshot from the point off my mouth was somewhat climactic. What would a hockey memoir be without a little blood. Long story short, I was in my natural habitat killing a penalty, net front, when next thing I knew I was in a puddle of my own blood. A month and a half later I was back, just in time for playoffs, with twenty stitches in my face. It’s safe to say I was never quite the same killing a penalty. Aside from that side note, nothing had went catastrophically wrong that season. After living out so many previous situations where I found myself going from place to place, it was nice to feel like I had a home for once. But like Robert Frost and Ponyboy once said, nothing gold can stay. I went into a relaxing summer finally knowing what my plan was for next season. It wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was comfortable. I wasn’t crash landing in some rural prairie town looking for a home and a spot in the lineup. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a phone call mid summer from a coach I once thought I would never play under again. Ironically, I was being named an assistant captain for the coming season. I was proud of that, mainly for I was able to see how I had matured as a young man; grown and adapted to an environment that maybe wasn’t ideal. But things seemed a little too perfect between the Abbotsford Pilots and myself. We had a contending team and I was put into a position as a leader in what might have been a championship finale season. But too perfect they were. Just as nothing in my entire four years of junior hockey seemed to flow peacefully, I had one last knock. Around ten games into the regular season, of my twenty year old year, I was shipped to the not-exactly-contending Mission City Outlaws. I don’t know what it was about the Pilots and me, but it just seemed never meant to be. Every time I checked back in my check out time was a little sooner to be than expected. That being said I created some relationships with teammates, staff and people involved with the team in which I still value very much to this day. Some things just aren’t meant to be. Remember my buddy Jack who ditched me in Flin Flon? He was in Abbotsford with me. I forgot to mention that little part. We sort of became a package deal for my last couple years. That package deal brought him to Mission with me as well. We both decided, since it was our last year and we were together once again, we might as well give it a shot. I played a couple games with the Outlaws and ultimately quit. I had to get Jack back for leaving me out in Northern Manitoba somehow. No, realistically I was just completely done. I had been done twenty something times prior. But this time I truly felt done. I didn’t want to get comfortable with another team. I didn’t want to establish myself with a new team. I was ready to carry on with life. I began working full time construction jobs. Let me tell you, if you want to miss something, work construction labour instead of it. In coming months, I felt like I had been transformed into a middle aged man in the blink of an eye. Despite working in the past while playing with the Pilots, I still had that little piece of my youth to hold close while I grew up. I think any hockey player (or athlete for that matter) can attest that it can be extremely humbling to move into a normal work environment after being somewhat of a glorified athlete. You’re used to being treated with a sort of entitlement, and that is completely stripped from you. Especially on a construction site. Nobody cares who you are. It’s humbling but it’s healthy. And unless you make it to the big show, everyone experiences it to some degree. The Mission staff was really good to me after my departure. They kept in contact with me and every so often would pay me a phone call to see if I was sure about my decision. They were very courteous leading up to the player movement deadline because it was my last eligible year. They kept me thinking and I finally came to a decision after a couple months to finish off my journey. There were a couple of regular season games left, than playoffs. As expected, we were eliminated in the first round, by who other than the Aldergrove Kodiaks. If you read the first half, you’ll know they were sort of my junior hockey kryptonite. Oh well, better than the Abbotsford Pilots, right? They were also eliminated in the first round (haha). That is the only dirt I’ll throw in this entire thing. Which is pretty good, considering a few things that probably came out of my mouth during heated moments through out the years. I was happy I went back. I think it meant a little bit to everyone around me. My family, girlfriend and some of my close friends. I sort of left the book open. It was a wild ride, full of ups and downs, that received a quiet ending. I kind of like it that way. Through out the process of writing all of this, I made an effort to say as few names as possible. It adds confusion to the story for people who aren’t familiar with it. Though, I wouldn’t feel right without saying a few names in conclusion. I don’t know who and who isn’t going to read this, but just in case you do. All of my billets who took me in and gave me a home. That alone is truly spectacular. It’s something I’m not sure I could do properly in my adult years. Despite some of the fun I poke, I had no horror stories. I’m thankful for all of my home away from homes. Josh, Miles you guys made my first experience living away from home not so hard to bear. You guys were both in your home province of Saskatchewan and made a BC boy feel not so far from home. Matt, Kyle and Kent we were like the fantastic four out in Dryden. Nobody was close to home, and in that we created our own. Which brings me to Mike and Shawna. You guys made the experience in Dryden so enjoyable for everyone. It was such a true pleasure being amongst your family. Mike, the conversation we had about hockey and life, before I left, meant a lot to me. I’ll leave it there. I felt blessed to have you all there for this journey. It doesn’t exist without you. I’m so grateful for my family, allowing me to chase this never ending thing for these last five years. I can imagine it was a hard to watch sometimes. My brother Adam always gave me something to chase. He was why I wanted to be a junior hockey player. I’ve had a few months now to dissect all the memories. Look back on all the bumps, bruises but more importantly those beautiful moments. Now with the hockey season just around the corner, I can’t help but feel a little odd. I’ve got nowhere to be this September. I feel content though, with the ending of this chapter. Looking back on all of this, I think I came to a very important realization. I’m twenty-one years old. I’m not going into a professional hockey career. I’m not entering a glorified college hockey career. Hell, I’m not even signed up for beer league. I didn’t really end up anywhere at all. But I realized that’s not what matters. It wasn’t about how many points I got, this or that season. It wasn’t about the amount of ice time I got in a game two years ago. It wasn’t about winning a ring and it wasn’t about being seen a certain way by those around me. It was about all those moments that don’t get remembered on stat sheets and websites. It was about all these experiences that made me me. It’s about the bumps and bruises. It’s about getting cut from teams and traded by teams. It’s about getting that first WHL minus from my own brother with my folks watching. It’s about all those tough good byes I had to say through out the years to so many important people. It’s about that twenty hour greyhound to Ontario. That’s what this whole thing was about. The ride. Not where I ended up. I started this ride, five years ago, when I was a sixteen year old kid who thought his life would look a little different at twenty-one. I finished a twenty-one year old man, who feels so blessed and thankful for the road this ride was on. I never really arrived at any exact location. I just know the ride was beautiful.